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The Daily Tar Heel

Lack of energy causes UNC men's soccer to fall to Clemson in ACC Championship

The UNC men’s soccer team lies on the field during the men’s soccer ACC Championship game against Clemson at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina, on Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023. UNC lost 5-3 in penalty kicks after a full-time score of 1-1.

With his hands on his hips, senior midfielder Ernest Bawa watched in silence as the Clemson men's soccer team celebrated its ACC Championship victory. It was a sight of despair, and fatigue, that was mirrored by many of his fellow Tar Heels on the pitch.

In North Carolina’s first ACC championship game since 2018, the Tar Heels fell 1-1 (5-3) in penalty kicks. The contest displayed an issue that has plagued UNC all year: a lack of energy. Game after game this season, head coach Carlos Somoano has pointed to fatigue as a problem for the team. On Sunday, after playing four games in two weeks in the ACC Tournament, it finally caught up with them on the biggest stage as the Tar Heels mustered just two shots on goal across regulation and two overtime periods.

“We were just laboring the whole game long,” Somoano said.

UNC took the lead in the 49th minute after graduate midfielder Quenzi Huerman found the ball in the box off a pass from junior midfielder Andrew Czech. The goal was his tenth of the year, making him UNC's first double-digit goal scorer since 2017. 

UNC graduate midfielder/forward Quenzi Huerman (11) and UNC junior midfielder/defender Andrew Czech (27) celebrate Huerman’s goal at the ACC men’s soccer championship at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, NC on Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023. The Tar Heels lost in penalty kicks after a full-time game score of 1-1.

After the ball found the back of the net, though, Huerman appeared tired on the pitch. The Seton Hall transfer, who Somoano labeled as the vocal leader of the offense, was unable to produce another shot all game. With Huerman and others struggling to run up and down the field, the UNC offense sputtered.

In the 83rd minute, the team’s lack of energy finally came back to bite them. Attempting to secure a pass from sophomore midfielder Sam Williams, Huerman was late to the ball and earned a yellow card for the ensuing tackle. 

Off the set piece, the ball eventually found the feet of Clemson midfielder Ousmane Sylla, who faked out a UNC defender and capitalized on an opening to tie the game. Somoano marked this as a product of the team’s fatigue.

“We were organized and prepared, but we just limped into our spots on that set piece,” Somoano said

By the time UNC reached overtime, the Tar Heels could produce nothing offensively to challenge the Clemson defense. Long crosses and entry passes were easily handled by Tiger defenders. In total, Clemson outshot UNC 4-0 in the two overtime periods, but the UNC defense was able to hang on to keep North Carolina in the game and force penalty kicks. 

“As a coach, you can see how hard they were laboring just to move around the field and to cover ground and to get to spots,” Somoano said. “So I’m really proud of them for hanging in there.”

Fatigue has been an issue for UNC all year. Against a 2-7-4 William & Mary team on Oct. 17, the Tar Heels reached the low point of their season. Unable to find the back of the net, UNC labored to a 0-0 tie against the Pride. Somoano said the lack of energy in that game was a product of “the challenge of being a student-athlete.” Huerman used that moment as a point of reckoning for UNC.

“It's going to come down to how much we want it,” Huerman said when asked how they would build back the energy following the draw to William & Mary.

In the ACC Tournament, the Tar Heels appeared as though they did want it, but signs of this same issue still lingered. In the quarterfinals against No. 6 Wake Forest, UNC barely held onto a 1-0 lead while possessing the ball just 33 percent of the time. Somoano said the lackluster second half was the result of the Wednesday to Sunday turnaround in the ACC.

Clemson head coach Mike Noonan echoed a similar sentiment.

“It's the hardest conference in the country, and it's as difficult a tournament, if not more so, than the NCAA Tournament, to get to this point,” Noonan said.

While Somoano emphasized that “there’s no excuses” after the loss in the ACC Championship game, the Tar Heels have reached a point of no return. Like Huerman said, it’s going to come down to how much they want it. And Somoano is confident that UNC will find its way.

“We're all going to be hurting the last ten minutes of a game, but it doesn't mean you can't do it,” Somoano said. “Your bodies are capable of so much more than we think sometimes. And hopefully we take that as a learning lesson and try to apply it next week.”


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